Ron Palenski – The Making of New Zealanders

Ron Palenski - The Making of New ZealandersRon Palenski, The Making of New Zealanders, Auckland University Press, 2012, 382pp.

New Zealand historical writing has a strong tradition of lively, well-informed studies for the general reader and Palenski’s new book is a good example of this.

The Making of New Zealanders identifies a number of key factors that contributed to the emergence of a self-conscious national identity in the second half of the nineteenth century. The earliest of those Palenski identifies is the introduction of the telegraph and the adoption of a uniform time, New Zealand Mean Time, in the 1860s. These innovations helped overcome the isolation of early settler New Zealand and encouraged the idea that the country was a nation rather than a mere aggregation of scattered communities.

The next ingredient in the brew from which a national identity formed was the increasing significance and power of the press. Palenski offers a detailed chapter on nineteenth century newspapers and includes in this an interesting section on how an emerging New Zealand literature relied heavily on the press as a publishing outlet. The following chapter, ‘The Symbols of “Godzone”’, examines some of the expressions of an increasingly unified nation in the form of a national anthem, a national flag, an issue of New Zealand stamps featuring the kiwi, and other such examples which expressed a sense of shared identity and projected a distinctive image of the nation abroad.

Later chapters bring the story into the early twentieth century, discussing New Zealand’s lack of enthusiasm for being included in a federation with Australia, mobilisation of the armed forces during the so-called ‘Boer War’ (the ‘South African War’ has become the more commonly accepted usage), and the role of national sporting teams in the development of the national psyche. Palenski has previously written on the history of New Zealand rugby and the final chapter, in which he argues that the 1888 Natives tour of Britain have better claim to the title of ‘the Originals’ than the famed touring team of 1905, is particularly informative.

So far so good. The Making of New Zealanders offers a lively, vigorous and well-researched account of the subjects I’ve outlined. It could have done with tighter editing. William Pember Reeve’s celebration of New Zealand, ‘God girt her about with the surges’, is quoted twice within twenty pages and yet still manages to provide different final lines. Too often the prose falls back on cliché: ‘futures’ always have ‘portals’, ‘change’ is always ‘irrevocable’. And a sentence such as the following should not have passed the scrutiny of an academic press: ‘It was he [Seddon] who had to straddle political asymmetrical bars metaphorically tugging the forelock in the imperial direction while asserting a national identity in the other.’

But the main problem with the book is that it aspires to be a work of academic revisionism as well as one of popular history. Its thesis is that New Zealand’s national identity was established in the final third of the nineteenth century rather than at the beginning of the twentieth, and the sign-posts that other historians have taken as marking the moment when national consciousness was created were the affirmation of an already formed national identity rather than its genesis:

‘The role of the Boer War, the 1905-6 rugby tour, being given dominion status in 1907, and New Zealand’s role in the Gallipoi landings – all affirmed rather than established New Zealand’s national identity. Instead it was laid down gradually in manifold ways almost from the arrival of the first European colonisers’.

None of the historians that Palenski spars with would deny this for a moment. In an all-too familiar academic move he has created a straw man of his own which he repeatedly knocks over. In fact, for all his occasional skirmishing with recent New Zealand historiography little serious account is taken, for example, of Belich’s re-colonisation argument, of the implications of Ballantyne’s work on the importance of ‘localism’, or the work of others who have argued that the national identity being shaped in the later nineteenth century was hardly an inclusive one.

Palenski’s one sustained attempt at a detailed critique of a thesis at odds with his own, Fairburn’s argument that there was nothing exceptional about nineteenth-century New Zealand and that it failed to develop a distinctive culture of its own, is unconvincing. In mounting his case against Fairburn, Palenski highlights political opposition to transportation, Maori parliamentary representation, the abolition of provincial government, secular education, votes for women, the export of frozen meat, and the social legislation of the 1890s, none of which would be news to Fairburn, and some of which are hardly exceptional.

Palenski’s case that New Zealand national identity was formed earlier than has been acknowledged is based on a recurring false antithesis: is, he asks, a particular social feature a cause or an expression of national self-consciousness and identity? His repeated answer that in the mid-late nineteenth century it is a cause, but by the turn-of-the-century a symptom, becomes a self-fulfilling argument. Put like this, national identity cannot be other than an earlier development than he claims historians have acknowledged. Much better throughout is the detailed discussion of the different constituents of national identity, be they cause or symptom, that he isolates. I learnt a lot I did not know from this book but the terms in which its argument is couched means that it has failed to establish its larger case. It will be read with benefit and pleasure by general readers but I cannot see it having much influence on wider debates in New Zealand historical writing.
Rod Edmond